After being asked to write this article I was "wracking my brain" endeavoring to come up with a fresh topic when a friend of mine remarked that I'm always "pointing out" the number of Novice dogs that lack a "lift". Which was quite true - I have often advised novices if they would only improve their lifts, the rest of their run would automatically improve, as the sheep would be easier to handle. Her comment really got me speculating as to "the why" so few Novice dogs are taught to lift correctly.
So, what causes this recurring problem especially with Novice dogs? I believe the biggest hindrance Novices have schooling a dog to lift correctly is "dog broke sheep". Don't get me wrong - I consider dog broke sheep perfect for starting a dog and I always try to keep some around. I think they help give confidence and teach a dog to "get to the other side" of their sheep. However, there comes a point when they are a detriment instead of an asset.
How can a dog ever learn "what a lift is" when the sheep take off running straight to the handler every time he gets behind them (and in worse case scenarios before he ever gets behind them)? To compound this problem most Novice dogs aren't driving yet so "these" sheep become even more determined to come running toward the handler at the first sign of a dog - considering they are never driven anywhere, only fetched.
Nevertheless, I've seen "bad lifts" on more than just Novice dogs. I've observed that many people teach an outrun by having the dog go out to 12 o'clock and then just bring the sheep. The end result is a dog that does what I call a "fish hook" out run. They allow the dog to go out until he's behind the sheep and as long as he's "on balance", they just let him "keep on coming"! In other words, the dog changed the outrun from a curve to a straight line and kept on going until the sheep took off running.
The point I'm trying to convey is that when the dog reaches balance point and turns in, he should not come forward until he's sure which direction the sheep are going to break. He needs to pause or slow up to acknowledge that the outrun is over and that it's possible that the sheep just might not come straight down the field. You don't have to down a dog (I down very few of mine). However, he has to slow up and read sheep in order to be in a position to go either left, right, or straight ahead.
Everyone assumes the sheep will come straight down the field if the dog is in the correct "spot". What happens if 3 sheep go straight but 2 decide to go sideways? The dog that understands lifts will be in a position to cover the other two - a dog that doesn't will have pushed the 3 forward and the other two could well be in a position to double back on the dog.
A correct lift occurs when the dog comes in assessing what the sheep are doing and feeling which way they are going - that means all the sheep not just the ones he's fixed on. A dog needs to be in a position to lean or flank left/right in order to counter-balance any moves the sheep make away from the straight ahead movement you require. If the dog comes in pushing then he's not in a position to "fix" any movement especially a sideways movement as all his momentum is going forward.
So, you say "how do you fix this". A couple of approaches will work, but, to be honest, the best is to never letting the dog run out to 12 and bring the sheep "full tilt" become a habit.
It's so much easier to teach a dog how to do "something right" if he hasn't practiced "doing it wrong" for months on end. However, if all you do have to work with is dog-broke sheep, and you are teaching outruns, don't just stand there and let the dog bring the sheep. As soon as you send him, start walking to one side or the other, attempting to teach the dog that straight isn't the only direction.
I usually walk the same direction I sent him since I would rather have him trying to over run than pull up short. I will walk to my right if I send him on a "away to me" so when he reaches where balance would have been... I've since moved 10-20 feet over so he has to cover farther than what he thought.
Teach him that he needs not only to try and figure out where the sheep are going but where you have gone. Another thing that will help is to have your sheep run toward something other than you (like a barn or a trailer) so when you send him and he "hooks in" he has a chance of loosing them. This lesson will help teach him the importance of not "rushing in where Angels fear to tread".
Another possibility is to have a large group of sheep, then shed off 5 or so and do outruns (making sure you have enough space to do an outrun, between the small and large group) with the 5 trying to run toward the larger group. Taking care that the dog is out-running correctly, (the correct distance behind the sheep,) and not just trying to "outrun" the 5 sheep.
As always, it's better to "intermingle" methods so you are teaching not programming. But try and remember the most important lesson is to teach the dog to "self-correct". In other words, try to show him why he should cover not just "straight ahead", but any direction the sheep decide to go.